Wording on a pre-operational research carried out with a 6-year-old child

| March 24, 2015

Jean Piaget has been attributed as the father of cognitive development. His belief was that a child’s cognitive development influences their social and emotional development. He proposed several principles regarding child development that has influenced substantial research on child psychology (Smith et al, 2003).

Piaget proposed that cognitive development of humans is based on their ability to adapt and learn from the environment through assimilation and accommodation (Piaget, 1952). This process in children is based on developmental stages, which is in turn dependent on the age of the child (Schaffer and Kipp, 2009). He proposed four cognitive development stages in children: such as the sensori-motor period (children of age 0-2), preoperational period (children of age 2 to 7), the concrete operations age (children aged 7 to 11 years) and the formal operations stage (children aged 11 or 12 and above).

The pre-operational period of a child’s development is that stage at which children are able to relate to objects symbolically (Piaget, 2001). Piaget asserts that the thinking of 2 – 7 year old is animistic, egocentric and characterised by centration. They are able to reason about objects and events based on their symbolic representation (Damon and Lerner, 2006). However Piaget (2001) asserts that children of this age range are unable to make appearance and reality distinctions of these objects. Therefore if the appearance of two similar objects (number, mass or liquid) has been changed, the child would be unable to deduce this logically (Schaffer and Kipp, 2009). This occurrence is attributed to their inability to conserve, which refers to a person’s understanding that superficial changes in appearance do not reflect change in quantity (Damon and Lerner, 2006). Pre-operational children lack the thought process required to apply principles of compensation and reversibility and therefore have difficulty in conservation tasks (Piaget, 2001).

Though Horowitz (1987), amongst other theorists, has verified the authenticity of this theory, Vygotsky’s (1978) emphasis on the socio-cultural affect on childhood development portrays that cognitive development cannot be viewed in isolation. This view is supported by Damon and Lerner (2006) who discovered that cognitive development of children in various parts of the world differs significantly. Donaldson and McGarrigle (1978) found that children’s responses to Piaget’s experiments improved by up to 48% when the wording and context were changed. Even slight variations in the wording could help clarify the meaning of the question, and can have positive effects on the child’s performance (Locke and Ciechalski, 1995).

The major objective of this research is therefore to ascertain the effect of wording on a pre-operational research carried out with a 6-year-old child. Would a variation in the wording and context of the experiment result in a different response from a child in the pre-operational stage?

This research would be adopting a deductive approach to answering the research question. Existing theories have been reviewed, which would then form the basis of this research that aims to verify or discredit such assumptions (Horowitz, 1987).

This research was carried out with a 6-year-old male. He is from xxx origin, class, school, hobbies and activities. He is well averse in English language and can communicate effectively.

The conservation of quantity experiment was utilised in this research. The materials present were two empty glasses (measuring 30ml, 5cm long and were conical in shape), one clear plastic bowl (square in shape and measuring 5 cm square, 2 cm long) and a jar of diluted Ribena, which were all set on a dining table. Two chairs were present, with the child sitting opposite the researcher.

The participant utilised in this research, is the researcher’s child. The child’s permission was sought without interfering with his playtime with friends, eating time or homework time, thereby removing any obstacles that would have prevented the child’s full attention. The procedure was explained thoroughly to the child, the researcher confirmed that the child fully understood what was going to happen before the experiment commenced. The Child’s identity has been protected in this researcher, by referring to him as ‘The Child’.

This experiment was designed to replicate Piaget’s conservation of quantity experiment as depicted in Piaget (1952). The procedures, materials and participants are to a considerable extent, a replication of Piaget’s experiments.

The replication of Piaget’s experiment followed the following sequence.

a. The two glasses, one bowl and Ribena jar were placed in the middle of the table.
b. The Child was invited over and talked through the whole procedure.
c. Consent was sought from the child, in that he wanted to participate and understood the procedure and what was required of him.
d. Equal portions of Ribena were poured into both glass cups.
e. The child was asked if the quantity in both glass cups were the same.
f. Then the Ribena in one of the cups was poured into the square plastic (shorter and wider).
g. The child was asked again if he thought the quantity in the glass and the bowl were the same.
h. The responses derived from the child were recorded and the experiment was concluded.


The following conversation ensued during the experiment:
– Researcher: “I am going to pour Ribena into these two cups for you and your brother. I want to give you the same amount”

– Child consents and nods head. Researcher pours equal quantity into both glass cups.

– Researcher: “Do you think the Ribena in the two cups are the same amount, or are they different?”

– Child examines content in both cups.

– The Child: “They are the same amount mummy.”

– Researcher: “OK, but this one cup does not look clean, let me pour the Ribena into that bowl.” Pours contents in one of the glass cups into the bowl.

– Researcher: “Is that OK, would you like the one in the bowl or the one in the cup?”

– Child examines content of the glass cup and bowl.

– The Child: “I would like the one in the cup”.

– Researcher: “Why? Are they different?”

– The Child: “The one in the cup is bigger mummy, that’s why I want it.” Child has mischievous look on face, like he has done something really smart.

– Researcher: “OK, I would give you, but why do you think the one in the glass is bigger”

– The Child: “Because it looks taller, and the one in the bowl looks shorter. I want the one in the glass cup.”

The major objective of this research was to ascertain whether a change in the wording or context of the experiment would result in any significant difference in response from the participant, with respect to Piaget’s conservation experiment of liquids for children in the pre-operational developmental stage. Piaget claimed that children in this stage were unable to distinguish between the same quantities of liquids that had been poured right in front of them into glasses with different shapes (Piaget, 1952). However Donaldson and McGarrigle (1974) recorded better results in kids when the wording of the experiment and context were more ‘child friendly’. The experiment was therefore carried out with a 6-year-old kid, and the materials and language utilised were those that the child were familiar with and had a keen interest in (in this case – a bigger share of Ribena fruit juice).

The child reported that the quantities of Ribena in the conical shaped glass cup, and square shaped plastic bowl, were indeed different, and that he wanted the glass cup because that was ‘bigger’, even though he saw the researcher pour the contents of the other glass cup into the shorter and wider bowl. When asked to expatiate on the reason why he thought the contents of the glass cup were bigger, he attributed it to the contents being ‘taller’. The child did not seem to understand that though the contents had been poured into a shorter and wider bowl, the contents of the liquid had not changed; it was only the width of the bowl that made the liquid lose height. These findings conform to Piaget’s (1952) theory on the cognitive developmental stages within children. It illustrates that The Child is not able to conserve and deduce logically that the quantities in both containers are indeed the same.

Though the wordings and context were changed significantly to represent something that the child would understand fully, he did not seem to verify Donaldson and McGarrigle’s (1974) theory on the changes in response that could occur. Though a change in wording and context does enable The Child to understand the experiment better and answer the questions more effectively, the findings of this research illustrate that he is still unable to logically deduce the correct answer.

However, the fact that this research was carried out on just one child, poses a severe limitation. Responses gotten from The Child, though reliable and valid, are not generalisable for all kids aged 6. It does not imply that all six-year-old kids in the vicinity, same school or even the same house, would give the same response. Another limitation pointed out by Schaffer and Kipp (2009) is that kids start an experiment with a predisposition that something is bound to change. When the researcher inquires about the content the second time, they believe that something must have changed for that question to be asked, thereby prompting their response.

Though my research on wording and context did not necessarily disprove Piaget’s theories, I believe it does pose a significant opportunity as children seem to understand the situation better, and are more interested when the experiment is of interest to them. I therefore recommend further research with more children, using the procedures outlined in this study.

Word Count: 1578


Damon, W., and Lerner, R. M. (2006) Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, emotional and personality development, John Wiley and Sons, 1128pp

Donaldson, M. and McGarrigle, J. (1974) Some clues to the nature of semantic development, Journal of Child Language, Vol. (1), p185-194

Horowitz, F. D. (1987) Exploring developmental theories: toward a structural / behavioral model of development, Routledge, 216pp

Locke, D. C., and Ciechalski, J. C. (1995) Psychological techniques for teachers, Taylor & Francis, 338pp

Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children, New York: International University Press.

Piaget, J. (1972). Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge. Penguin.

Piaget, J. (2001) The Psychology of Intelligence, 2nd Edn Revised, Routledge, 203pp

Schaffer, D. R., and Kipp, K. (2009) Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence, Cengage Learning, 647pp

Smith, P. K., Cowie, H., and Blades, M. (2003) Understanding children’s development, Wiley-Blackwell, 663pp

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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